If Cheney Had Dropped The Bait

So concerned was Thomas Jefferson about the need to maintain civility in legislative debate that he mentioned it specifically in his "Manual of Parliamentary Practice."

"No one is to disturb another in his speech by hissing, coughing, spitting, speaking or whispering to another; nor to stand up or interrupt him," the Virginian wrote when he was vice president of the infant republic.

The spirit of that sage advice was violated on the floor of the US Senate Thursday, when Vice President Dick Cheney let rip a vulgar profanity at a photo opportunity. Insulted by Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy's earlier insinuations of cronyism vis-à-vis Halliburton, the big-time military contractor in Iraq that Mr. Cheney once headed, he succinctly told off the senator, who had crossed the aisle to greet him.

Certainly Washington politics has seen worse, including brawls on the Senate floor. In 1856, a Massachusetts senator was actually beaten unconscious for his antislavery remarks. The Senate, known for its supposed decorum, has advanced since then, but one need only think back to the Clinton years and the vituperative exchanges on both sides to be reminded that personal rancor and insult are alive and kicking.

It's just that behavior, which obfuscates meaning and undermines faith in government, that the Bush administration vowed to change. "We take seriously the responsibility to be honest and civil," Cheney said in 2001.

That's why it's so disappointing that the vice president took the bait, then failed to drop it when he had the chance. In an interview with Fox News on Friday, he described his response to Mr. Leahy's attack on his integrity as "appropriate," and said he "felt better" after uttering it. Such defensiveness only sets the bar lower.

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